There are three commentators covering Russia that stand out — Anne Applebaum, Masha Gessen, and Julia Ioffe. In the past week, each one has taken the pen to record more observations about the state of a country that is on a downward spiral, suffocated by Putin and his associates. Applebaum sets the stage with an excellent book review of Putin’s Kleptocracy by Karen Dawisha, a political scientist. Gessen summarizes the state of affairs today. And Ioffe authors a magisterial essay on Khodorkovky, accurately dashing any hope of future reform.
Democracy as Decoration
There is finally proof — or at least an amalgamation of extensive earlier research augmented by a tremendous new trove of primary sources — to confirm that Russia is not “being pulled down by history,” but its return to an authoritarian regime has been systematically orchestrated by Putin and his “close-knit cabal” since the late 1980s. This group of “unrepentant, single-minded, revanchist KGB officers who were horrified by the collapse of the Soviet Union” never sought to attempt reform, instead they “used democracy for decoration rather than direction.”
Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the oligarch-turned-quasi-revolutionary that we’ll discuss later never had a chance with this group of trained operatives that immediately created and then, as they climbed the ladder of power, reinforced a system of citizen control. An old Russian anecdote, which reflects actual fact, spoke of citizens never being able to pay taxes honestly, because if one followed the tax code they would owe more than 100% of their salary. And such idiosyncrasies were prevalent everywhere. In post-Soviet Russia, the cabal “wanted everybody to operate in violation” of the law. That way anyone could be arrested at any point.
With the right characters in place across all sectors of government and business, with the laws flexible enough to provide fair justification for arrest, Putin, in charge of the cabal, turned his attention to independent media. First came journalists, then the press, and finally television. All fell under the Kremlin’s control as Putin considered media and especially public television an “essential tool of social manipulation.” And so, since 2008, the Kremlin has used information not for public debate or diplomacy, but to “confuse, blackmail, demoralize, subvert and paralyze.” Moreover, for years, Putin has used his power not to bolster the image of Russians abroad, but to “undermine the Western establishment and Western institutions, including the European Union and NATO.”
Read Applebaum’s article or Dawisha’s excellent book for more, but there is undeniable evidence mounting from all sources that proves that Russia is not actually reacting to expansionist or manipulative US / NATO / Western policies, as some would suggest, but it is executing a well-planned, long-term vision of a relatively small group of men. The modernization of the country’s armed forces, tests of capabilities against Estonia, then Georgia, and now Ukraine suggest not a desperate, but a calculating Russia that can also operate patiently, opportunistically, and with intent.
Then They Came For Me
If you believe that the state of affairs leading up to today is in fact dire, then Masha Gessen adds fuel to the fire. In a short summary of an interview with her, she gets to the very essence of the seemingly implausible changes that are afoot in Moscow.
The majority of Russian people have become intolerably brain washed; many support the demonstrated strength of their leadership in the face of Western propaganda. But in fact, as Gessen suggests, things in Russia have gotten “so much worse, so much faster” than anyone predicted. Every week, she goes on, “something terrible happens there… the currency continues to tumble and inflation is on the verge of galloping.” All of this for journalists such as Gessen, and perhaps some of the more progressive Russians, is leaving little room to breathe.
Gessen describes that the cabal is imposing a new ideology or a “national idea.” This idea is rooted in traditional values, which has left no room for the LGBTQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Questionable) community to which Gessen herself belongs. In fact, the LGBTQ community has become the “target of choice.” As if in a country where the average male doesn’t live past 56, HIV is on the rise, alcoholism remains rampant, and war looms, targeting LGBTQ people should take priority! Gessen goes on to confirm numerous reports from Russia on violence against the LGBTQ community. “People are routinely beaten up,” she says. There are vigilante attacks and the high likelihood that the state will start to confiscate kids from gay couples.
Readers of The Bridge do not need to be reminded that to tie the autocratic noose around one’s population is almost always easier to do with a minority to focus on. And so, in this case, first, they came for the capitalists, now the gays. There are still a few left. Gessen is speaking out, who else will?
Well there are a few… but they are not in a position to save Russia. And their views on freedom or, for example, or gay rights may not vary all that much from Putin’s. This is where Julia Ioffe comes in with her essay on Khodorkovsky, the oligarch that crossed Putin and spent 10 years in prison for it.
Khodorkovsky’s story is a complex one. From one angle, he is an enterprising businessman that emerged from a regular Soviet upbringing to sit at the helm of Russian industry; a champion of Russian reform and transparency. He was a Westerner among old Soviet apparatchiks. He was Russia’s richest man. Of course, once he opposed Putin, the story changed. Khodorkovsky became a thief, the man that robbed Russia of the 1990s, the embodiment of corruption and greed.
Prior to the Sochi Olympics, in perhaps the last gesture toward the West we will see from Putin, Khodorkovky was released from prison. Since then he has agitated for reform, traveling around Europe and the US giving speeches and sitting for interviews. He is not, at least for now, a revolutionary, but he is setting the stage for an eventual return to Russia to participate on the political stage. Rest assured that this will not occur under Putin’s watch. The likelihood of Khodorkovsky meeting the same fate as Alexander Litvinenko (the former FSB officer turned London-based journalist that was killed in 2006) are much higher than him becoming the next president of Russia.
Nevertheless Khodorkovsky, as Ioffe points out, is following the timeless Russian tradition of conducting revolutions from abroad. He has the cash and Twitter, but other than that his influence seems limited. Many refuse to work with him for fear of losing their independence. He spoke in praise of folks such as Kenneth Lay, the former CEO of Enron. He was bemused as to why, here in the US, we would “glorify the cowardly spies and traitors” that blew the whistle on Lay.
When asked how he feels about gay marriage, he compared LGBTQ people to rodents, “whenever there get to be too many of them, they always find ways of limiting their reproduction.” So much for a progressive Westerner!
Parts of Applebaum’s and Ioffe’s essays can be read in parallel. It is amusingly eerie. The former summarizes Dawisha’s research of the financial threads implicating Putin and his cronies, while the latter digs deep to uncover the financial machinations of Khodorkovsky to describe his eventual wealth. Putin’s story is similar to Khodorkovky’s, in fact they mirror each other near perfectly, only confirming Dawesha’s thesis of the cabal enabling the oligarch infested ruckus of Russia in the 1990s.
Khodorkovsky told Ioffe that Russians are “not ready for a coup,” but that the only way to “improve things is through violent methods.” That time will come, he believes. And when it does, his successful experiences in managing complex organizations and surviving through crises will help lead the way.
Blackened by Petrol
Ioffe paints a bleak picture of Khodorkovsky. In doing so she gets right to the heart of the future for Russia. That not only are things truly dire, but that there is very little hope for change. In addition, Khodorkovsky should not be confused for a dissident. He is not an intellectual and his opposition to Putin wasn’t founded in ideology; he opposed the state for profit.
The crimes committed by him and those like him are but the tip of a much larger iceberg. There were countless murders, racketeering schemes, and exploitation of entire communities that were executed by the newly-rich Russian elite. Most of this occurred in Siberia across numerous oil towns and outside of the capital cities of Moscow and St. Petersburg. Thus it was always a shadow story, underreported not because it was hidden, but because most journalists lacked access or the wherewithal to travel out there. Even David Remnick’s Lenin’s Tomb, perhaps the best book written on early nineties Russia, is limited in coverage of what I would call the Siberian theater.
The growth of Khodorkovsky & Co. should not be compared to the American drive West or to our own robber barons. Post-Soviet Russia did not have an environment of moral or material destiny. It was a violent place. This shouldn’t be absent from the history of those that deem themselves cleansed by the camps. The crimes these people committed were not against a collapsing state (that may have deserved to be punished for decades of oppression); they were against other people that were also trying to be enterprising, but were smaller or weaker. That is their crime. These newly rich did very little to improve the state of affairs. They did not create, invent, or reinvigorate the economy. They robbed using every loophole and opening available; loopholes that were there, as Dawisha proves, intentionally.
It is in the history of Russia to have “kings in waiting” that are destined to be worse than those they replace. A monarchy, which even after serfdom considered the Russian people beneath dignity, was replaced by scheming Bolsheviks that treated their people like cannon fodder well before World War II and long after. They were in turn replaced by a new elite, which exploited the power vacuum and lawlessness to profit at the direct expense of others, creating enough backlash for Putin’s cabal to ease its way back to power. And now they are again exploiting the country, its people, and its periphery.
Khodorkovsky or others like him will not save Russia. You don’t have to be a saint to be a revolutionary. And it’s okay to have blood on your hands. But Khodorkovsky hasn’t earned any moral authority to lead. Putin will destroy any hope there was for Russia, but this is not the guy to reverse his course. The chances of others such as Alexei Navalny or Garry Kasparov are also limited. For example, the Navalny Protests from a week ago — where crowds gathered to object the famous anti-Putin blogger’s, Alexei Navalny’s wrongfulhouse arrest and unjust imprisonment of his brother — have dissolved. After all, it was New Year’s Eve, a high holiday in Russia, and the price of vodka was reduced to help pacify protests and bolster the holiday spirit… So much for resolve! The Navalny brothers were sentenced based on similar unjust legal loopholes that sentenced Khodorkovsky. And Kasparov’s influence ends on social media.
What’s most tragic for that desolate landscape called Russia is that its people, due to centuries of lies and indignity, have replaced hope with blind fealty.
For us in the West, there is perhaps some room to be optimistic. Leading the commentary on all these affairs is this all-star cast of women journalists and political scientists that have powerful and influential opinions. Two of them — Gessen and Ioffe — are immigrants from Russia. Anna Politkovskaya, a brave and renowned Russian journalist would have joined them in offering her informed voice, but she was brutally killed for it in 2006.
Mikhail B. Grinberg is a Senior Associate at Renaissance Strategic Advisors where he consults for aerospace and defense companies on corporate strategy and mergers and acquisitions. His primary areas of expertise include emerging technologies, growth strategy formulation, research and development valuation, and the interrelationship of innovation and corporate strategy. Mikhail is also on the board of the Defense Entrepreneurs Forum, thinks deeply about the intersection of industrial base and foreign policy, and studies the challenges of military reform, primarily through the lens of Richard Burdon Haldane. Mikhail is an amateur photographer and tweets at @mbgrinberg. The views expressed here are the author's alone and do not represent the official position of the Department of Defense or the U.S. Government.
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